Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Censorship and the Protection of Children on the Internet - Part 2

This is a continuation of Part 1.

A general lack of clear and nuanced thinking on the question of child protection on the Internet is reflected in a number of recent news items from around the world:
The knee-jerk mindset reflected in all of the above initiatives is that since there is no full-proof way to selectively stop young people from getting to inappropriate material available on the Internet, the best way to protect them is to cut off everyone's access. An analogy in the physical world would be complete bans on alcohol, tobacco and motor vehicles. Obviously ridiculous.

I see at least three distinct scenarios related to young people's access to such online material. Each requires a somewhat different solution:
  • Accidental access, for instance, a child researching farm animals types "horse" and "cock" into an unfiltered search engine, or mistypes a url. The easiest way to universally mitigate these situations is to make parental control software like that found on Apple OS X mandatory for all computer and OS providers. It's no different than requiring seat belts and child proof locks on automobiles.
  • Intentional access, for instance, a child or young teen who has heard about those infamous Tijuana bars hacks the parental controls and goes searching for images and video. This is a much harder situation to handle. Strong parental control software will at least limit the percentage of curious youth who can get to such sites. A second level of defence would be making sites with adult content responsible for adult verification, like the system being tested for Second Life. No solution is fool-proof, but this would be a step up from the simple "click 'yes' if you're an adult" practice that's used now.
  • Intentional contact by others, for instance another person (of any age) contacts a child through chat, mail or some other means and directs them to adult content. This is very hard to control, but happens much less often than the impression popular media often projects. The same knowledge that make Digital Natives a security challenge, also makes them less vulnerable to predators.
There is no perfect solution short of universal identification and biometric verification that will both provide adults with access to all content and also keep all children out 100% of the time. Although most of us want to provide our children with the safest possible environment, we don't lock them in a padded room to prevent them from tripping and breaking their legs. Solutions such as the ones I suggest above provide a reasonable amount of risk mitigation without starting down the dangerous rode of government censorship.

Frontline produced a good documentary looking at some of these issues, that is available for free viewing online.


Chestnut Rau said...

My brother is a middle school teacher. Some years ago he asked his students to write about "the hottest place on earth." He was horrified (and in fear of his job) when the students turned the assignments in to him. In subsequent years the assignment became to "write about the place on earth with the highest temperature."

Your post tickled my memory so I thought I would share.

Ken said...

We don't allow children to smoke, drink alcohol, nor drive -- because we collectively believe it's seriously dangerous to children to let them do those things.

We should closely investigate the dangers of the Internet for children, and educate parents and children in ways to mitigate this danger. If any seriously dangerous Internet activities are found then making those activities unlawful for children seems appropriate.

Banning all of us, for the safety of a few, can only result in a loss of freedom, and should be viewed as an infringement on our rights.

In the mean time, if a parent believes Internet use is dangerous to children, they shouldn't allow their children to use it without close monitoring.